You’ve written and edited your novel at this point and want to know how to write a query letter that will get you a literary agent.
It’s not an easy thing to do. Ask anyone who’s written a query letter and they’ll tell you as much. I certainly will. Writing a good query letter means condensing your entire 80,000 – 100,000 word novel or book into roughly 500 words or less. Honestly, you want to be at 250 words or less if possible.
This means you don’t have time to talk about your secondary characters, your subplots or your backstory. You’re going to have to rip your entire story down to the bare bones, figure out who and what’s the most important, and SELL IT.
A query letter is your commercial for your book. A typical literary agent easily gets swamped with hundreds of query letters per week. Your query letter has to be something special – something that stands out from the others piling in.
The success of your traditionally published novel depends on this first step.
So hold on, sit tight, and read forward about how to write a query letter that will (hopefully) get you an agent.
Before you read any further I think it’s important to fully disclose some important information.
Literary agents are subjective. No matter how amazing your query letter is and regardless of whether you’ve perfectly followed every single query letter writing tip from one hundred different websites, it is still 100% up to each individual literary agent whether or not they will choose to represent you.
While it may look like there is concrete objective criteria for how to write a query letter…
In fact, literary agents receive so many queries that it’s rare they have time to personalize rejection letters – some won’t respond at all. In order for you to query agents, you will need one thing more than anything else:
One more disclaimer – I’m not a literary agent. The information in this article comes from a combination of everything I’ve learned through literary agents, editors and my own person experience on the road to traditional publication.
A standard form rejection looks something like this.
I’ve received plenty of them and once you start querying, chances are you will too.
So keep calm, and query on.
How to Format Your Query
Depending where you go and who you learn from you will find slightly different advice on how to write a query letter, which includes formatting. When I first started querying I learned from Janet Reid of QueryShark. For that reason, this article will be similar to the tips and advice that come from QueryShark.
By the way, if you haven’t already done so, you should definitely go there and read through Janet Reid’s archives. She dissects rough query letters and helps their respective authors turn them into works of art, allowing you to read the entire transformational process. We’ll talk about how you can get feedback on your query letters later.
A query letter contains 5 parts.
- A hook (To snag the agent’s interest)
- Story information (To tell the agent what they can expect to find if they read your book)
- Book information (Such as genre, word count, awards, previous publications, etc.)
- Biographical information (About yourself. Some agents want this and others don’t)
- A send off (“Thank you for your time and consideration,”)
Your final submission to an agent may also contain a synopsis and/or chapter submissions.
Having said this, your query letter has exactly one job and one job only:
What is it?
Simple – to make the agent want to read your book.
You can have the screwiest format in the world, but if the agent wants to read your book they will request pages. Having said that – by not following standard formats, you are making it far more difficult on yourself and decreasing your chances of being asked for a partial or a full.
The first paragraph of your query is extremely important as it must grab the agent’s attention and entice them to read on. Let’s simplify even further, by talking about what you should start your query with and what you shouldn’t.
You SHOULD start your query letter by:
- Beginning your letter with “Dear <Agent’s name>” (and please don’t literally write “Agent’s name”)
- Introducing your protagonist
- Stating your protagonist’s age if you are writing middle grade (MG) or young adult (YA) fiction
- Snagging your query reader’s attention
You SHOULDN’T start your query letter by:
- Writing either your or the recipient’s address/contact info (they know who they are and they can find out who you are later)
- Not addressing the agent directly (ie. don’t write “Dear Agent” or “To Whom it May Concern”)
- Opening with a cliché (don’t use a cliché anywhere else either)
- Using a rhetorical question (the reasoning is that you’ll never elicit the answer you’re anticipating or hoping for)
Also, be very careful to not use long run-on sentences. Not only does this look bad in the query, but it’s an indication of what’s to come in your book. Query letters are true tests of writing concisely.
From QueryShark, here’s an example of a query I like with a great hook. Here’s another. And here’s one more.
Queries with good hooks do exist.
How can you figure out your perfect hook? Write three different variations that pop into your head – now write another three. See anything you like? Good. Work with that. No? Write three more. Get a friend to check. Post a comment on this article with your hook and let’s brainstorm together.
This part is going to make up the bulk of your query.
The idea here is to take the most important elements of your story and turn them into a short commercial for your book. Forget your subplots, ignore most secondary characters and don’t even think about adding in minor ones. You have an extremely limited window to make an agent want to read your book.
When you think about how to write a query letter, this is the part you need to focus on the most.
Ask yourself this – what is the main conflict in your story? Focus on that. You will need to let the agent know what’s at stake on two levels:
- What are the personal stakes for your protagonist?
- What’s at stake for the people or world around him or her?
In other words – what does your protagonist have to lose?
Here is a very simple template to follow for your query.
What does your protagonist want and what’s keeping him from getting it? What choice does he have to make? What does he have to lose if he doesn’t do it and what does he have to lose if he does?
Conflict is INTERESTING and your query should be full of it. THAT is how to write a query letter.
Oh, if only it were as simple as just that.
In the last section I gave you a list of things you should or shouldn’t do. In this section I’m only going to give you one of each – because if you’re going to focus on something let it be on these two things.
Your query SHOULD have voice.
Your query SHOULDN’T ramble.
Having voice is difficult to explain. In your book you want to show, not tell. In other words, don’t tell the reader that your hero is afraid of bees. Show them that he knocked down a beehive as a kid on a dare and spent a week in the hospital. The same holds true for your query but it needs to carry a special essence of writing that comes from you as an author.
This query for NINE DAYS is exactly the one I go-to when I need inspiration on finding voice.
By shouldn’t ramble, I mean you really need to trim down every paragraph – every sentence to the bare essentials. You don’t have time to go on about everything in your book – it won’t fly. It certainly won’t get you an agent. Get your query to around 250 words max. Here’s a query I like called PREMEDITATED that does it’s job in far less words than that.
This part is a lot easier than the previous two sections. All you need to do here is tell the agent the housekeeping stuff about your book. Tell them:
- The name of your book. Type it ALL IN CAPS. Using italics is an alternative depending on the agent.
- Your word count – not your page count.
- Your genre. Don’t ever write “fiction novel.” This could mean instant rejection. Is it fantasy? Sci-fi? YA? MG? Picture book? etc.
- Is this a standalone book? Part of a series?
Mine looks like this:
ELEMENTALISTS: THE FIRES OF CANICUS is my debut novel. It is a YA contemporary fantasy, complete at 99,000 words. It is a standalone novel with several more in a planned series.
This is your chance to tell the agent a little bit about yourself. Some agents may request a bio, others may make no mention of one, in which case it’s probably optional whether to include one. What should or shouldn’t you talk about in your bio?
- Mention if you have any publishing credits. If you don’t have any then you can say so. Just don’t lie.
- Talk about what inspired you to write this or why you’re qualified (if there is a good reason).
- Personalize and mention how and/or why you are querying this agent in particular, if there is a reason.
- Keep it as relevant to your writing career and credentials as possible. You don’t need to mention you work a desk job by day.
A Send Off
“Thank you for your time and consideration,”
Nothing more, nothing less.
Practice and Review
Honestly, in terms of how to write a query letter I’ve pretty much given you everything you need to get started. Don’t expect to get it right on your first try. It can happen but the people who have to spend a lot of time and go through multiple query versions far outnumber those who don’t.
I mentioned earlier in this article I would give you a few ways you can get help with your query. Here they are:
- You can try to get a public review from query master, Janet Reid, on Query Shark. This is hard to do and there’s a big waiting list.
- You can leave a comment with your query on this article. Either I or other Café members can provide you with feedback.
- You can go to reddit’s /r/Writing subreddit and wait for user, “BiffHardCheese” to post a query critique thread. They don’t happen often but they’re worth it when they come around.
- You can go to reddit’s /r/Queries subreddit and ask for a query critique there. It’s nice to give other people critiques while you’re there too.
- You can go to Agent Query Connect, and head over to the Query Critiques forum. They encourage you to pay it forward by critiquing others queries after you receive a critique, yourself.
That’s it! Good luck with your querying!